Sarah Whitaker, who was honored twice this year for her work as a special education teacher at Mayo Elementary School, was not one of those kids who always knew what they wanted to be when they grew up.
When she was a psychology major at Providence College in Rhode Island and considering becoming a school counselor, she requested material from the Johns Hopkins University. As she leafed through the brochure, she noticed that the university offered an early-childhood special education program.
"I don't know what made me choose it, but I think it was the right choice," said Whitaker, who took the job at Mayo 6 1/2 years ago, after graduating with a master's degree from Hopkins. "I love my job. I really can't imagine doing anything else."
Apparently, she's good at it. This year, The Arc of Anne Arundel County recognized her as special education teacher of the year, and the Rotary Club of Parole (Annapolis) named her teacher volunteer of the year.
Terri Nyman, director of development for The Arc, an advocacy group for people with mental retardation or developmental disabilities, said six or seven nominations were received for the annual award and that the winner was chosen by a committee of volunteers.
In nominating Whitaker for the Arc award, Mayo Principal Victoria Waidner wrote that Whitaker is "a true professional who displays the highest degree of skill in teaching and warmth and respect toward her students."
The nomination, which was submitted by Waidner on behalf of the entire school, praised Whitaker's creativity and energy, and said she has made an enormous difference for the children she teaches.
Whitaker received the honor at a banquet in March at the Fontainebleau in Glen Burnie.
"We were delighted to be able to nominate her," Nyman said.
Whitaker was also praised in the Arc nomination for her work as an instructor at the Maryland Therapeutic Riding School in Annapolis, a nonprofit organization that uses horses as therapy for physical, mental and emotional disabilities.
That involvement earned Whitaker the Rotary Club award, said Christopher Young, chairman of the organization's 2005 teacher volunteer service award committee. He said the organization got about a dozen applications from schools in Parole and nearby towns.
"What set her apart was the fact that she used her teaching expertise to benefit the entire community," Young said. "She just volunteered a boatload of time to this group [the Maryland Therapeutic Riding School], and that was very impressive."
This is the second year that the Rotary Club has offered the award, which comes with a $500 prize, Young said.
"The theme is service above self, and we were looking to honor teachers who not only are helping the community by being teachers, but go above and beyond," he said.
At Mayo, Whitaker, who grew up in Bethesda, works with a class of three second-graders, two third-graders and a fourth-grader, whom she helps with language arts and math. The children need more than remedial help, she said.
"Most of my kids have more severe reading delays, difficulties with math and problem-solving, writing," she said.
One challenge, she said, is tailoring her teaching methods to the children's individual needs. "Each child is different and has different ways of learning and different needs," she said. "You kind of have to find a way to group them when you can and individualize them as much as you can."
To make it work, she said, no lesson plan can be set in stone.
"You have to be creative," she said. "You have to be patient; you have to be willing to change your plans midstream."
Having such a small group of pupils makes that job easier. "They get lots more one-on-one attention," she said. "A lot of them have very serious attention issues, so they kind of get lost in the bigger class."
The job isn't easy, but the rewards are enormous. Whitaker has warm memories of the pupils she has taught over the years, including one who was transferred to her class in the middle of the academic year a few years ago. He arrived with a file folder of discipline referrals, she said.
"He was very behaviorally challenged, but when he came I just sort of treated him like he was any other kid," she said. "We got along really well."
For Whitaker, "that was one of those success stories, developing a relationship with a child that everyone else kind of said, 'I don't want him in my classroom.' Being able to look past that and see the good and see what could be accomplished.
"I really am very lucky. I have sweet kids in my room."